By Steven Olender
Maurice Sendak, who would have turned eighty-nine this Saturday, released his most famous book, Where the Wild Things Are, fifty-four years ago. The book has touched countless lives, selling over 19 million copies and inspiring adaptations on stage and in film.
Where the Wild Things Are was always a favorite book of mine. As a child, I reveled in the idea of creating a world of my own imagination, of sailing across the seas and befriending a cadre of majestic creatures. On re-reading the book recently, though, I see new facets in the ten sentences and fanciful illustrations that make up the book. Working at CASA, I can’t help but see the children we serve in Max as he struggles to gain some semblance of control and to cope with his cacophony of unresolved emotions.
The book starts in a familiar place for children from hard places. Max is acting out, creating mischief of one kind and another. His mother’s response to his behavior issues is punitive, calling him a “Wild Thing” and sending him to bed without supper. Ostensibly, she denies him two of his basic needs: food and affection. Cut off from the love and attention he needs, Max stews in his emotions. It is then that Max escapes, not by running away from home, as is so common with children in care, but by running away in his mind, devising a world of his own to control.
When he sails across the sea of his imagination, he finds an island full of creatures named for being the very thing for which Max was punished, Wild Things. Like many children who are punished for behavioral issues, Max responds by doubling down. He imagines gaining a sense of control over the fearsome Wild Things by being the most fearsome and wildest thing of all.
He and the other Wild Things have a rumpus and all is going well until he acts out the same withholding behavior that sent him into this world in the first place. By seemingly arbitrarily cutting off their fun and sending the Wild Things to bed without supper, Max is echoing what happened to him, effectively continuing a cycle of behavior. Max, like many children we serve, is full of conflicting emotions and he reconciles them the only way he knows how, by mimicking the behavior that was modeled for him.
Though he has created a world where he is the adored king, there is something unresolved in Max. Still he yearns for the parental affection he was denied. He sets off back home, across the sea and out of his world of imagination. When he gets to his room, the supper he was denied is there, still hot. In the final drawing, Max appears content but, looking at it now, one wonders if the contentment is fleeting. Max’s primary concerns, withheld affection and the subsequent emotional turmoil, are left unresolved. One gets a sense he will return to the land where the Wild Things are.
In an interview with Leonard Marcus, Sendak explained his work. “I only have one subject,” he said. “The question I’m obsessed with is: how do children survive?” Sendak, himself, was never in foster care, but tragedy left his parents ill-equipped to be emotionally available for their son. It was through art and writing that Sendak learned how to survive. Max found his survival in the world of his imagination. As advocates for children, we work to ensure their safety and that their basic needs are met, but we also support them in finding healthy coping strategies. We concern ourselves not only with how children survive, but how they cope and grow and thrive. That way, we ensure that when a child travels to a world of imagination, of Wild Things and rumpuses, it is an exercise in creativity, not escape, and that they always have supper waiting, still hot.
Advocacy June 2017